Only four more NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season races are left in the Chase for the Championship as the hectic competition moves from its longest track at 2.66 miles around Talladega to the one of the shortest tracks at Martinsville with its .526-mile oval.
Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Va., is not only short with 12-degree banking, but it’s shaped like a paperclip with very tight corners at each end.
The paperclip track—which has stapled winning hopes of NASCAR drivers to abundant lists since the forming in 1948 of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing—has special challenges.
When the green flag falls for the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 Powered by Kroger on October 27, drivers leading the Chase—Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.—will bring experience to a track where seat-time counts.
Some fans may say it’s a two-man Chase race and Johnson is “The Man” again, but Kenseth is just four points away. Busch and Harvick are only 26 points back, and Gordon is still a contender at 36 points away.
The leaders had solid comments going into the small track with the championship on the line.
Johnson approached Race 33 with characteristic precision.
"Martinsville has been good to us in the past,” Johnson said. “There is going to be a lot of strong competition. We will make sure we get buttoned up and ready to go for this weekend's race and go up there to that paperclip and see what we can do."
Kenseth’s magical season may have more good tricks coming, perhaps at Martinsville. He seemed confident.
“Martinsville is really predictable, and I don’t look at that as a big wild card race,” Kenseth said. “I look at that as an opportunity to hopefully run up in the top five or six and get a good finish.”
Busch started the Chase well, but Kansas crashes spoiled his point total. Since then, he has come back to third place and seems ready for more at Martinsville.
“It’s a racetrack where you can be leading the race and think you’ve got a shot to win the thing in the last 30 laps and then get beat on from behind,” Busch said. “If you’re just a little bit off, then the guys are going to be trying to get by you.”
Harvick is tied with Busch and still has the potential to overtake Johnson and Kenseth. He talked about the challenges at Martinsville.
“You have tight turns, and you also have to worry about the tires falling off,” Harvick said. “It creates the ultimate challenge of keeping track position, dealing with the fall off of the car, deciding whether you want to be good on the start or end of a run.”
Gordon needs wins and bad luck for those in his way to another championship. He admits that Martinsville track has changed the least since he has come to NASCAR
“Even though the cars have gotten faster,” Gordon said. “The way you drive the track, how you use the brakes, how you roll the center and how you apply the throttle hasn't changed drastically here versus other tracks.”
Earnhardt is not mathematically eliminated, but he is mathematically challenged. He needs wins for his No. 88 Chevrolet and bad luck those five drivers in his way to the point lead. He defined his challenge.
“Martinsville is not really about momentum as it is about repetition,” Earnhardt said. “You'll find a line that you like and just continue to repeat that or do little tweaks on it each time you go through the corner and find things that work and don't work.”
NASCAR hopes two or three drivers go into Homestead with slim point totals separating them. Fans hope for that down-to-the-wire finish to the long season as well.
Any one or two of the top 15 drivers could snatch a win in the next four races, making it a little difficult for the top two or four to hold their point advantage.
The next 1,500 miles of racing at three tracks will determine the intensity of the final 400 miles at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Fans that are not in one of the 65,000 seats this Sunday can view the action caused by Martinsville challengers beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET on ESPN TV.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, information and all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official release materials provided by sanction and team representatives.